The bright young people in student government at the Johns Hopkins University no doubt pride themselves on their openness to a diversity of views and their commitment to the free exchange of ideas. That's why the school's Student Government Association's Judiciary Committee was right to overturn the student Senate's decision to deny official recognition to a student-led anti-abortion group. It's on just such contentious issues as abortion that vigorous public discussion and a healthy respect for the views of others are most needed, and we hope that's the lesson Hopkins' student government will ultimately draw from this imbroglio.
This was never really a question of First Amendment rights. Hopkins is a private institution that is perfectly entitled to set limits on the types of views it endorses and their manner of expression. Furthermore, Voice for Life would have been perfectly free to espouse its views whether it was recognized or not. The group plans to gather in front of abortion clinics near the university's Homewood campus in hopes of persuading women seeking to end a pregnancy to reconsider their decision. Whether it had the right to assemble peacefully, speak or pass out literature was never in doubt.
What the issue really came down to was whether the Hopkins Student Government Association should withhold official recognition of Voice for Life as a legitimate campus organization solely because it disagrees with the group's position on abortion. Recognition by the student government confers certain privileges that make it easier for groups to meet on campus and raise funds for their activities, but they can still operate without it. The only thing the student government association's refusal to recognize Voice for Life really did was to publicly declare its strong disapproval of the ideas espoused by the group and stigmatize them as unworthy of consideration.
There's no doubt many Hopkins students — particularly young women who fear being harassed by the group — consider any challenge to abortion rights as a personal affront that threatens their control over their bodies as well as their dignity. We, too, support abortion rights, and we are concerned about the flurry of efforts in state legislatures this year to enact new restrictions that severely limit women's access to abortion services in ways that clearly are punitive and probably unconstitutional as well. Voice for Life's website links to pages with graphic images of dead fetuses that paint women who seek abortions as criminals and killers, so it's little wonder some young people are both disgusted and deeply offended by the group's tactics.
What student government leaders need to keep in mind, however, is that the unfettered exchange of ideas that characterize a vibrant intellectual community like Hopkins necessarily involves views some people will disagree with expressed in a way that makes them uncomfortable. That's the way it is in the real world, and the SGA members would do themselves and their educations no favors by seeking to shelter themselves now.
What students at Hopkins are getting out of the dust-up over Voice for Life's activities is a crash course in the messy, disruptive and often painful process of making a democracy work. These are not easy questions they are being asked to resolve. They go to the heart of people's most deeply held moral, ethical and religious beliefs, and they test everyone's capacity for self-examination as well as their tolerance for opposing views. Above all, it's a discussion that forces them to think more clearly and debate the issues more incisively, and that's one of the things we expect a college education to prepare young people to do. Denying recognition of Voice for Life was a mistake, but it was a valuable one because it forced the students, without the interference of the university administration, to work through the conflicting values posed by the situation. It's good that the students eventually came to the right decision, but more important is the lesson they learned along the way.